Romancing Rhododendrons

Peter Norris brings color to Chilmark, via the hills of Nepal

Peter Norris has been cultivating rhododendrons since the 1960's. – Photo by Susan Safford

“My reward for doing all this is to see people light up when they see things they didn’t expect,” said Peter Norris, whose Chilmark garden boasts rhododendrons rarely if ever (until now) grown on the Island. “When they say, ‘I never knew a rhododendron looks like that, that’s my reward.”

Far beyond growing the rhododendrons that are so familiar — those tall, fat-leaved evergreen bushes bearing frothy pink or white blossoms — Mr. Norris delights in variety, the lesser-known plants. Unbeknownst to garden novices, the diversity within the rhododendron family is enormous, Mr. Norris said, leading this Times writer and photographer on a tour of his extensive 4½-acre garden.

No typical weekend gardener who buys some shrubs, plants them, and watches them grow, Mr. Norris is a horticultural explorer who has learned by doing, watching, researching. Passionate about rhododendrons, he has not only grown them for decades, he has investigated their history, their origins, visited their native habitats, familiarized himself with hundreds of specific species, searched for others, and is even working to create some new ones. “Maybe it’s part of the scientist in me,” said the recently retired, MIT-trained solid-state electronics engineer.

Tucked into gently sloping woodland just below the Norris home, the sun-dappled garden is serene and enticing on a warm June afternoon. Narrow walking paths meander through the woods, beside plantings, mounded earth set with shrubs, occasional flowers, delicate grasses, unusual trees.

A pond, partly covered by green plants and algae, is a haven for frogs. Rounded boulders, fallen tree trunks, small statues, and stone walls accent the growing things. Simple wooden chairs and benches call out to passersby to stop, rest, and reflect.

“This is a ‘Janet Blair,’” Mr. Norris says, stopping before a tall rhododendron with fluffy pink blossoms, perfectly suited to the 1930s movie star for whom it is named.

In the midst of the garden, “the Nursery,” surrounded by a high wire-mesh deer fence, is temporary home to some 200 fledgling plants. Only inches tall but already boasting big oval leaves, the baby rhododendrons will live in this protective shelter until sturdy enough to thrive in the larger garden. Mr. Norris points out a delicate little rhododendron with tiny, glossy green leaves and a single vibrant purple blossom. Barely 10 inches high, this perky miniature will continue to grow, he said, but so slowly it will take decades to attain even modest stature.

He leads the way to another one with light salmon blooms from the Heritage Museums and Gardens, once owned by rhododendron hybridizer Charles Dexter. The deep scarlet flowers of ‘Henry’s Red’ glow through the trees. Nearby is ‘Festive Feast,’ one of the few rhododendrons with a scent — this one a faint, vanilla berry.

Here are an azalea, and a mountain laurel with intricate peaches-and-cream flowers, both close relatives of the rhododendron, Mr. Norris explains.

Mr. Norris strides briskly through the looping paths, visitors hustling to keep up. He calls attention to a shrub here, a flower, a delicate Japanese maple, a towering metasequoia planted in September 2001, and countless rhododendrons. He knows them all intimately, his varied flock. He calls them by name, and has a story about every one.

Complimented on his ability to keep the plants’ names, both scientific and familiar, as well as their origins, characteristics, and growing habits on the tip of his tongue, Mr. Norris modestly says it is a good exercise to keep the memory supple.

Mr. Norris said he could not name his favorite rhododendron, especially because some are at peak beauty at different times of the weeks-long flowering season. “Sometimes you fall in love because they are little gems, or because one is a beautiful giant,” he added.

As Mr. Norris affectionately introduces individual plants and describes how they came here, and the care taken to keep them healthy, one begins to think of them as animals. They seem like friendly exotic creatures, whisked from distant homelands to this nurturing sanctuary. And Mr. Norris is their vigilant caretaker, always working to create optimum conditions, protecting them from predators, binding them up after storm damage, giving them a drink when days are dry.

They come here not from the steamy African jungle, but mountainous, often remote regions of Asia, most often China, Nepal, and Thailand. Only three types of rhododendron are native to the United States, Mr. Norris says. But those from abroad are legion.

Figuring out what plants can survive here, and how to help them thrive, is one challenge that Mr. Norris loves. It goes hand in hand with his drive to bring diversity to an uninspired rhododendron scene. Not surprisingly, he names the late Polly Hill as inspiration and mentor.

In the 1970s he volunteered at the Polly Hill Arboretum before it was an established public garden. Later he was a board member for nine years, served as treasurer, and co-chaired the fundraising committee. He worked with Ms. Hill, and credits her for much of his learning and inspiration.

He recalled her comment that “Martha’s Vineyard is surrounded by horticultural poverty,” and how she set herself to changing that. Mr. Norris holds deep respect for Mrs. Hill’s adventurousness and determination to bring new and unfamiliar species to the Vineyard.

“She pushed the envelope,” he says with admiration. “She planted things to see whether they would survive here.”

Although he does not presume to be a horticulturalist of her stature, Mr. Norris is a follower in her footsteps. He is excited to introduce new plants here, especially rhododendrons, that come in many more shapes, sizes, and colors than people generally realize. “I love it when people say, ‘I didn’t know that was a rhododendron,’” he explained.

And like Polly Hill, he delights in experimentation.

“I try things people more experienced wouldn’t try, because they wouldn’t be likely to succeed,” he said with a laugh.

Although Peter Norris was neither raised nor trained as a horticulturalist, gardening has been a constant theme in his life. He was born in New York City, and the family later moved to suburban West Hempstead, N.Y., where his parents grew perennials and flowering shrubs

In 1960, young Peter Norris headed to Cambridge to attend MIT. There he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and finally a Ph.D. in electronics engineering.

His own first garden came in 1968, when he moved to New Jersey for his first job after college.

“Once I had a place of my own, I began gardening,” Mr. Norris recalled. He was drawn to rhododendrons from the outset.

A few years later he and his wife returned to Cambridge, where he established a quarter-acre urban garden in the fertile Cambridgeport area. Rhododendrons again were the stars.

Seasonal visitors who had rented here for many years, the Norrises bought a small home on the Island in 1980. Along with providing a vacation retreat, the West Tisbury property offered Mr. Norris a new gardening opportunity.

In 2000, the couple acquired a house and compact barn on 16 serene wooded acres in Chilmark, “because the place in West Tisbury was only ⅘ of an acre, and I had filled that up with rhododendrons and needed more space,” Mr. Norris chuckles.

Mr. Norris admits that today when he sees the “big, mature giants” that thrive on the West Tisbury property, he finds them a little boring. But he explained that was all that was available in nurseries at the time.

“There wasn’t much on the palette. Everyone had white and pink and purple blowsy things. That was it.”

“People ask, How did you get interested in rhododendrons?’” said Mr. Norris. “I wish I had a good answer. I saw them, I got interested, I wanted to have some of them. It’s been a love affair that’s grown over time.”

That horticultural romance got a burst of fireworks in the mid-1980s with the advent of the Internet. Suddenly Mr. Norris could view and purchase rhododendrons from nurseries across the country, predominantly in the Pacific Northwest.

His wife would awaken at 2 am and find him poring over nursery websites, entranced by the vast array of rhododendrons. “My jaw would just drop open at what I saw. I had no idea that rhododendrons could be so varied in color! That was a real epiphany for me. That opened my eyes. That was really what I was after.”

He began buying seedlings less than a foot high, very different from the tall, mature plants sold by local nurseries. He was enthralled to find rhododendrons with uncommon leaves, in varied shapes and sizes.

“I liken it to wine tasting,” said Mr. Norris. “People start out with just red or white, then once they start learning about it, they learn all the varieties, the individual vineyards, the vintages. It keeps getting more and more complicated the deeper you get into it.”

“The rhododendrons are exactly the same way. I started off with just red and white, what I could get at the local nurseries, then through mail order from nurseries, then the Rhododendron Species Foundation and American Rhododendron Society. I started to see what a wide variety of plant material was available,” he said. He now serves on the board of the Rhododendron Species Foundation.

The more Mr. Norris learned, the more deeply he wanted to explore. He and his wife went on plant-hunting expeditions with the Rhododendron Species Foundation to remote Chinese provinces, searching for specific rhododendrons in their native habitats.

“It’s very exciting,” said Mr. Norris. “And there’s detective work, trying to track down from sketchy reports where plants are located.”

The trips put him in mind of the groundbreaking work of 19th century British plant explorers who risked their lives to search out rhododendrons in Asia and bring them home.

Asked whether his wife, Amy Rugel, shares his interest in gardening, Mr. Norris smiled: “She’s a good sport.” He added that she enjoys the horticultural expeditions, and maintains her own vegetable garden.

After his recent retirement from a long and successful career in solid-state materials and electronics engineering, Mr. Norris began living year-round on the Vineyard, and dedicating more and more time to his gardening. His daughter, Rebecca Norris, lives in Edgartown with her husband, Times graphic designer Kris Rabasca, and their daughter Hannah, 13, who loves to visit her grandfather’s magical up-Island garden.

Mr. Norris is quick to emphasize he does not maintain the garden singlehandedly. Suzy Zell, who logged many years working for the Polly Hill Arboretum, is head gardener. “She’s my right arm — and my left arm; we’re a team,” he said, grateful for her dedicated expertise. Artist/gardener Rick Hoffman oversees lush perennial beds. Surprisingly, Mr. Norris said he had neither master plan nor model for the graceful garden layout, but simply added a little at a time.

These days Mr. Norris is immersed in his newest passion, hybridizing. He is working to create new rhododendrons combining chosen characteristics from parent plants, to make them both attractive and suited to the Vineyard environment.

The enterprise requires patience and dedication, for potential pitfalls are many. The flowers he has pollinated may not produce seeds; the seeds may not germinate; the seedlings may not thrive. Not only that, a rhododendron can take years, even decades from seed to flower.

But it is evident that Mr. Norris finds the rewards well worth the work and risk, as he leads us to a second nursery and points to rows of young, custom-blended, hand-grown, ‘Chilmark Blueberry Ridge’ hybrid rhododendron seedlings, basking in the sun. These plants, he said with satisfaction, don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

Though seemingly always ready for a new challenge, Mr. Norris predicts his hybridizing project will keep him busy for some time. But should things slow down, his next intriguing step is to begin creating interspecific hybrids, combining rhododendrons and azaleas.

The garden is becoming known among rhododendron enthusiasts. Mr. Norris offers occasional tours to groups, such as the 20 members of the American Rhododendron Society’s East Coast Chapter who visited in May. He welcomes guests each year at the Garden Conservancy’s Open Garden Day, a nationwide program. He said he has no desire for notoriety, only that those who wish to see his plants will have the opportunity, and he is confident that will happen.

“People who are interested will find my garden,” he said.

Rhododendron Tips by Peter Norris

I’d like to quote from a far more experienced rhodo plantsman than I, the late Hank Schannen:

12 Criteria for success in planting rhododendrons

  1. Drainage
  2. Drainage
  3. Drainage
  4. Drainage
  5. Drainage
  6. Drainage
  7. Acid soil pH
  8. Dappled shade
  9. Able to water when needed
  10. If pot-grown, loosen roots [viciously]
  11. When in doubt, plant it HIGH!
  12. Hmmm – more DRAINAGE!!!

8 Ways to Kill a Rhododendron

  1. Site it on the SW corner of a house
  2. Full sun
  3. Heavy clay soil
  4. Wet — poor drainage
  5. Downspout nearby
  6. Neutral/alkaline soil pH
  7. Plunk the pot-grown plant into the ground with root ball in pristine condition
  8. Ignore 1-6 and 12 on first list